The third time I floated the Rio Grande River through Boquillas Canyon was smoother than the first two. Since it was my first time to lead an actual group into the backcountry, that seemingly simple fact was especially good. There were twelve of us on that particular trip, paddling two per aluminum canoe. We made the 33-mile excursion down the river on the east side of Big Bend National Park over three days, with two nights spent camping out along the way, only a couple of inconsequential technical canoeing problems, and a straightforward vehicle shuttle at the end. Other than dealing with a certain amount of teenager chaos, we mostly just went with the flow, gazed out at the mighty Sierra del Carmen mountains rising off to the southeast, and pondered the majesty and complexities of the humongous cliff walls surrounding us.
Things hadn’t been that way on my first two trips. It wasn’t that the river, spectacular canyon walls, and the looming bluish massif of the Sierra del Carmen weren’t there on those trips. It’s just that there’d been other things to think about.
I went there the first time with Coulter, a guy that I’d gone to junior high and high school with, just after our freshman years in college. We put in our “cost less than $100” inflatable rubber raft at Rio Grande Village, a campground and store in the National Park, and located just upstream from the canyon. Leading up to the trip, we wasted little time reading guide books. And were not concerned, by the fact that modern civilization would pretty much end, once we entered the canyon. For whatever reason, we were confident that we’d planned it all meticulously. While we hadn’t actually done that, for various reasons, we were prepared for uncertainty— and that ended up being our saving grace.
There were a couple of things that we did know about our river trip as we pushed the raft off from the riverbank into the lazy current. First was that we were headed into one of the three big canyons (Santa Elena, Mariscal, and Boquillas) along that section of the Rio Grande. And second, was that there were no big rapids for us to worry about. The latter was especially important since neither of us had much in the way of river or whitewater experience.
Once out in the water, the current soon grabbed us and swept us past the point of no return. It was a mysterious and magical realm that we entered, as humongous rocks and cliffs suddenly rose both to our right and left. At that point, we realized that there was no more Mexico or USA. No Big Bend rangers, no parents, and no one to ask. There was only the water, over 100 miles of a mostly wild river, and mountains without people in our new world.
We started in the afternoon and planned to go only a couple of hours into the canyon before finding a place to pitch our tent for the first night. We somehow knew enough to paddle more or less together and had placed our fully-loaded frame backpacks in the middle of the boat. We were amazed by how much weight the raft held. And initially, at least, were pleased by how well it was serving its purpose- and for less than $100.
We had to do little in the way of paddling to move as fast as we dared. Mostly, we just kept the front of the raft pointed downstream and let the river do the rest. By 5:00 pm, we felt the south breeze, which up until that point had mostly been at our backs, begin to shift more to the east and change from a gentle breeze into a stiff one. Soon, the wind change became profound, and we were suddenly hit head-on by a brutal and sand-filled gale that almost completely stopped our forward progress.
We both dug our paddles deeply into the water and pulled for all we were worth in a drastic attempt to keep moving forward. After paddling for five minutes, we gauged our progress relative to an old tree trunk over on the shore and noted that at least we hadn’t been blown upstream. If only we had a canoe, I thought, maybe we’d actually be going downstream.
By a stroke of luck, a large sand bar created the US side of the river right where we were. Amidst all of the paddling struggle, we were able to glance over and see some camping possibilities. We’d planned to go further before stopping for the night and were hoping to find a pleasant, grass-covered flat spot for pitching our dome tent. But at that particular moment, we opted to go for whatever we could get, and could see that our options weren’t either flat or grassy.
Thankfully, we were close to the shore, and after a few minutes of complex paddling got ourselves close enough to the riverbank for Coulter to jump out and drag us ashore. He held onto the bow-line that we’d thankfully tied onto the front of the boat and pulled the whole rig, with me attached, ashore. Our first instinct was to use the raft as a combination of windbreak and shelter. But we soon realized that it caught too much wind for that and then just focused on the need to securely anchor it to the ground to keep it from blowing away. I will say that losing your boat out where we were, would suck, although we didn’t spend much time thinking about that at the time.
After some struggle, we were finally able to tie the raft down to the big log that we had used to assess our progress. Once that was done, we began looking for a good place to set up the tent. We recognized that we were quickly becoming overwhelmed by the wind and needed to get out of it, so became even less picky regarding where to set it up. We located a spot that was more or less level, although not particularly protected, pulled the 3-person tent out, and went about the process of fighting the wind to put it up.
What should’ve taken only a few minutes took considerably more. But we eventually did get it set up and almost miraculously with the door facing away from the wind. As soon as it was ready to go, we climbed in and zipped ourselves inside. Even though we could hear the wind pounding outside, it was calm and without any blowing sand inside, and so, for that moment, all was good.
Eventually, the wind subsided to the point where we could go outside and cook supper, although we didn’t do that and opted for the no-cook meal that we’d brought along for emergency use instead. As it turns out, a strong wind was not something we’d even thought about in our pre-trip planning. And so, while eating a mix of crackers, cheese, and Oreos, we speculated about what we would do about supper if the wind was like that every day.
After the wind incident, the rest of the trip went flawlessly. A couple of days later, we pulled the raft up onto the bank, just under the bridge at La Linda, and shuttled from there back into the park to Rio Grande Village and my pickup. We camped there for a few days, and then floated the middle of the three Big Bend canyons, Mariscal, as a sort of short bonus trip. Interestingly, on that trip, we performed something of a river rescue. A group of four college guys that we’d met in the campground decided to float through it as well but on a sailboat bottom. They ended up having an issue negotiating the technical river feature known as the “Tight Squeeze.” They were just ahead of us, but we caught up to them just as they took an unfortunate path over the big rock and were launched from their plank out into the water. We ultimately pulled them all out of the river and into our raft, and then dropped them safely off onto the shore. Afterward, as the two of us drifted back out into the current, we could hear them talking about what they were going to do next time. That was our “under $100 raft’s” last venture, but overall, we were pleased by how well it performed during its short but eventful life.
So, that brings us to the next trip, which was my second. Several years after the wind trip and a few months before my first trip as a group leader, I did it with an old friend, whom I’ll call Busby. We planned to do it as something of a dress rehearsal for the trip that we’d be leading a group of teenagers on, later that year. Once again, it would’ve made good sense to have many of the trip details worked out before doing the exploratory excursion, to begin with. But since it was supposed to be a planning trip, to start with, we figured we would deal with those “in process.” We were at least doing it in the late spring when the water and weather were relatively warm. And, we also had a bombproof aluminum canoe with us that didn’t leak, and knew where our starting point was going to be. Other details, such as those related to the required shuttle back to our vehicle from the take-out point, were a bit more ambiguous.
Things started off like clockwork. We made the six-hour drive to the park and our put-in location, once again at Rio Grande Village, as scheduled. We arrived in the late afternoon and had plenty of time to set up our tent in the campground and have supper before dark. The next morning, we were fully energized and ready to go when we carried the canoe over to the water’s edge. With the boat in a shallow and calm backwater, we loaded our packs into the middle and then climbed in. We just sat on the bow and stern seats, given the relatively calm nature of the water, and then eased out into the current.
The first few miles from Rio Grande Village, past Boquillas Crossing, and on into the canyon is mellow. The terrain is relatively flat, with only the mountains off in the distance, creating any sort of relief. The warm sun, predictable flow, and the fact that I’d done it before began conspiring early on to relax me. As we entered the canyon, the cliff walls rose up sporadically at first and soon completely engulfed the river. To better take it all in, I put my paddle down and laid back. Studying the seemingly perfectly orchestrated chaos of the rock overwhelmed my senses. River Cane grew in scattered and unlikely spots in the rocks where cracks and creases had been filled with bits of sand and dirt and seemed to spring up wherever the river made a turn. Two Crows soared near the top of the massive rock wall, which in places rose directly out of the water and seemed to extend up into the sky. With the warm sun conspiring with the calm water, I decided to close my eyes for just a moment and take a quick nap. That, it turns out, was a poorly thought out thing to do.
While I’d been conscious and controlling my end of the boat, everything had gone well. But apparently, something changed once I drifted off into relaxed slumber. Bad timing, I suppose. Something, perhaps a new sound, sudden shift, or dramatic change in speed, woke me abruptly and sent me springing into action, although a bit behind the curve. Busby was in the bow and doing all he could to keep us pointed downstream as we entered into a section of somewhat swifter current. He was struggling to keep us from turning broadside into the current, which I was aware often leads a canoe to swamp or turn over.
I grabbed for my paddle, but a couple of miscues in my attempts to do so delayed my action. Within a few seconds, I was able to slide back down onto the seat and finally got the blade of it into the water. But that was all happening just as the canoe was making an abrupt left turn perpendicular to the current. The side of the canoe seemed to reach down and suck in water, which further de-stabilized things and ultimately caused the boat to flip and dump us into the water.
While our situation was not all that good, I could see that the rapid that had created the problem was actually more of a riffle and soon just disappeared. I noted that we were actually in the middle of a big, calm, and slow-moving pool of water. I also observed that there was a big sandbar to our north where we could get out and reorganize ourselves and that our backpacks were still closed-up and floating nearby. Things could’ve been worse, but they weren’t.
Since we weren’t on a strict schedule, we grabbed the canoe and our packs and dragged them, along with ourselves, up onto the beach and began leisurely reorganizing and drying things out. Everything was mostly repacked and back to normal within about an hour. At that point, while Busby stabilized and secured it, I loaded the packs back into the canoe. We had learned some good lessons during the swamping event. And so, on the second loading/packing go-round, we tied things down better, realizing the problems that could potentially develop if one or both of the packs floated away. Once ready, we each carefully climbed in and took our positions, back-paddled out into the current, and once again headed on downstream, this time more attentively.
We spent three days floating through the canyon, from Rio Grande Village to the take-out at La Linda. Other than the swamping incident, it was a leisurely and spectacular float. We camped two times along the way, and it appeared that it would be an ideal trip for the type of group that we’d have with us later in the year.
We were pleased with how seamlessly things were working out as we floated out of the canyon and entered into the home stretch. But then, I began to think about the various logistics involved with the end of the trip. I started getting light-headed as I realized that there was one particularly essential end of trip task that I’d neglected to figure out. We were about to take our canoe out of the river near an especially remote bridge and needed to get it and ourselves back home. The process, commonly referred to as the shuttle, happens on virtually every river trip, and I’d completely forgotten about it. If we didn’t come up with some sort of solution, it dawned on me that we were about to be completely stranded.
About an hour before reaching La Linda, we conveniently floated up on a group of two canoes and four people, who mentioned that they were headed to La Linda, just like us. I inquired about their shuttle plans. They responded that they had left a Suburban parked near the crossing and would be taking it back to Rio Grande Village, where they’d left another vehicle. I did the math and realized that there was room for me in the Suburban and that I could, at least theoretically, ride back with them to get my truck. I was concerned about leaving the canoe and backpacks at the bridge while doing the shuttle but figured Busby could stay and guard them, while I made the round trip.
And so, after some chit-chat, I asked if they’d give me a ride back to Rio Grande Village, and they agreed. Problem solved, at least for me. We floated on past the savior group, after having made the plan to meet up on the US side under the La Linda bridge. Within a few minutes, their two canoes disappeared behind us. Busby and I eventually floated on down to the bridge, eased over to the shore, and landed.
It’s complicated just why there’s a bridge at that spot, to begin with. It was built in the early ’60s to provide access between the US and a fluorspar mine across the border. And it did just that. And by the time we were there, an actual town of sorts had developed around the mine. There was never much of anything on the US side other than miles of open desert. But a hearty bunch of miners and laborers called the Mexican side home, which created an aura of civilization and development.
The mine was in full operational mode as we dragged the canoe up onto the shore. We didn’t want to just leave it out in the open for the whole world to see, but there was no sort of structure or vegetation of any size to hide it behind. So, we just did the best we could and carried it up the bank a hundred feet or so and stuck both it and our backpacks behind a clump of not so big bushes. Just as we were finishing up with that, the two boats of our shuttle friends arrived. And so, we headed straight back down to the river’s edge to help them deal with their boats and gear.
The plan for our own stuff that we’d come up with was for Busby to wait with it and guard it while I was gone. When I returned, we’d haul it up the rest of the way. It was mid-afternoon by the time their Suburban was loaded, and we were ready to leave. I told Busby that I’d be back in four hours or so, which meant that if all went well, I’d be back before sunset. And then, we left.
Things did go well with the shuttle, although by the time I got back to La Linda, it was after dark. The round trip had taken a bit longer than anticipated. As I drove up, there was no apparent sign of Busby. But once I stopped, got out, and yelled for him, he emerged from the thicket that he was hiding in. We hauled the boat and packs up to the road, loaded the Scout, and by early evening were turned around and driving toward the small Texas town of Marathon and on our way home. I looked at the fuel gauge and was comforted to note that we had more than enough gas to get that far, assuming that all went as planned.
And that brings up an interesting point. Yes, we did have enough gasoline to get back to a gas station that evening, and thankfully it was still open when we got there. After fueling up, continuing the drive, and while Busby slept, I had time to ponder it all. My new memories of spectacular vistas and wild water were mixed-in with thoughts about some of the things that might have happened. Things like our packs floating away when we tumped, not encountering the shuttle people, or the possibility of arriving at a closed Marathon gas station. There were plenty of negative and scary thoughts. But they were all overwhelmingly countered by visions of the multitude of amazing things that we saw and experienced.
Turning the canoe over was a mess, but the water refreshing. La Linda is a lonely place, but the folks I rode with back into the park were full of good stories. A battle of sorts erupted in my mind. I thought about the unanticipated wind with Coulter, the Aggies getting launched off of their sailboat bottom, and Busby hiding in the bushes at La Linda. Those were compelling events that are forever etched in my mind. But they might not have happened had there been significant planning.
Ultimately, I concluded that there are specific details in every adventure that are best solidified ahead of time, especially when there’s a time constraint. They’re mostly logistical and safety things such as airline reservations and first aid kits. But at the same time, I realized that I should avoid the temptation to over-plan, which would remove the unexpected wonder and excitement of it all. Undoubtedly, on the three trips, I learned some of the nuances of canoeing and camping in Big Bend, gained respect for wild country, and continued the process of learning to be the one calling the shots. But the most profound takeaway was that there’s a balance that should be struck between planning and “winging it” for creating the most fun and compelling memories.